D.C. charter schools turn to city for help in re-opening

I have such mixed feelings about District of Columbia schools re-opening in the midst of this pandemic. Working in healthcare, I see the highly contagious nature of Covid-19. In addition, my wife and I have a grandson going through the distance learning experience with Montgomery County public schools. It has been difficult for us because we have had to severely limit our social interactions with our family, and it has been challenging for our daughter and her husband with two young kids at home.

However, the situation has not been nearly as devastating as it has been for so many people across the United States and world. In this environment, I do not think there is any one answer for re-opening our schools. While this is an important goal, especially for those students living in poverty or who have special needs, we cannot put the health and safety of our community at risk. I write this with the knowledge that some charters have brought a limited number of its scholars back to school for in-person learning.

Towards the aim of bringing all children back to the classroom, the DC Charter School Alliance issued a press release yesterday, signed by 70 charter leaders, calling on the city to provide resources for placing medical professionals in schools, guidance around public health procedures, and mechanisms for performing coronavirus testing of pupils and adults. I am not sure about the rationale for such a document. In the past, when charter schools needed to accomplish a common goal, they would take the initiative and figure it out themselves. It is a clear indicator about how murky the current situation is that the Alliance is not able to work with these schools to devise and implement uniform recommended operating procedures.

The editors of the Washington Post have called for a concerted effort to re-open schools. They write:

“There needs to be more urgency in getting students back in the classroom. If grocery stores and hair salons and gyms and restaurants can adapt, why is there not similar impetus to get children back to school in a way that is safe for them and their teachers?”

Grocery stores have adopted by offering more delivery and the ability to pick up orders curbside. Hair salons, gyms, and restaurants have severely reduced the number of people who can be utilize these services at one time while implementing personal protective equipment protocols. Statements like the one by the Post editors offering simple recipes to what ails us now do not help.

I tutor a middle school student on-line through the Latino Student Fund. She attends the National Cathedral School. Last Monday, NCS started bringing its students back for alternating weeks learning in person and remotely. Perhaps we can gain insight from their example as to how to do this with the best interest of everyone in mind.

5 year D.C. charter school movement secret revealed

Former DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson penned an article in the online journal Education Next entitled “5 Things We Learned in D.C. About How to Advance Charter Schools.” In the piece Mr. Pearson answers a question that has haunted the movement since 2015. That spring he wrote a commentary co-authored with Skip McCoy, the DC PCSB chair at the time, that made the argument that the balance between the number of children attending charters compared to DCPS “is about right.”

The editorial sent a shockwave through the local charter school movement. Leaders could not understand why such an argument would be made, especially at this moment in history, by the two people who were supposed to be the city’s strongest charter school advocates. As charters were growing at a record pace school choice supporters were looking forward to the day when the majority of students in the nation’s capital would be enrolled in these alternative schools. The thought was that the shift in the demographics between the two sectors would bring more resources to charters in the areas of funding and facilities, as well as provide a quality education to thousands of pupils who had been left behind for decades by the regular schools.

Now, a couple of months after stepping down from his position at the charter board, Mr. Pearson offers his rationale for the action he took and I warn you that it is not pretty. Under a section labeled “Remove the Existential Angst” he writes:

“In 2012 D.C. charters served 41% of pupils, up from 25% ten years earlier. With share growth of two to three percentage points each year it was simple to forecast that a generation hence DCPS would be reduced to a tiny remnant—or eliminated entirely. For some national charter school theorists, this was the goal, an extreme position in an active national debate about the ‘end state’ of charter schools.

In D.C., though, this possibility raised the political temperature tremendously.

It turned out most people in D.C. supported both charters and DCPS. Many families had children in both sectors. Many city elders were proud DCPS alumni. And, significantly, DCPS, under Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s leadership, was turning around, embracing core ed reform principles. Few Washingtonians wanted to see DCPS cast into the dustbin of history. As long as this was the looming future, any decision we made about approving new schools or new school growth was seen through this apocalyptic lens.

So I, along with my board chair, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that ‘the balance we have, with a thriving public charter sector and strong traditional schools, is about right.’ We didn’t impose caps to maintain this balance. But by closing low-performing schools, only letting high-performing schools grow, and approving only the strongest new applicants, we kept our market share below 50%.

Did this win over everyone? No. But it ensured that the mayor remained a strong charter supporter. It kept any discussion of limiting charter growth off the city council agenda. And it kept the average D.C. resident broadly comfortable with an education reform movement supportive of both sectors.”

In other words, Mr. Pearson’s and Mr. McCoy’s motive behind their polemic was purely political. They reasoned that by closing lower performing schools, severely restricting the ability of existing charters to replicate and expand, and blocking the approval of new charter school applicants, they could drive the proportion of students attending charters to remain under fifty percent of the total number of public school students enrolled, thereby making the movement more palatable to elected officials and other citizens.

I have spent thousands of words arguing that the DC PCSB has made it too difficult to open new schools and allow existing schools to add additional students. Now I understand completely why nothing was done to reverse the situation. But the explanation makes me severely depressed. The outcome of the strategy set by Mr. Pearson was that students were blocked from attending charters who could have greatly benefited from access to these schools.

In addition, the plan did not work. In the “Crossing the Chasm Isn’t Enough” final section of the Education Next blog post Mr. Pearson admits that the District’s charters are facing resistance like never before:

“But the rise of white progressive politics in the city, in combination with a somewhat re-energized union movement, has left our schools fighting attacks on multiple fronts–and often losing. We lost last year when the City Council regulated suspensions and expulsions. And we lost this year when the City Council mandated open charter-school governing-board meetings. We know there is more waiting in the wings – limits to growth, teacher representatives on charter boards, efforts to control our spending and our curricula.”


The sad conclusion is that Mr. Pearson’s effort to placate the public has backfired. The only true outcome of purposely stalling charter expansion has been reduce the number of kids attending charters in the nation’s capital.

How did D.C. do after first week of school? Cannot tell based on Washington Post report

Last Sunday, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein wrote an article purported to illustrate what parents, students, and teachers experienced during the first week of the new school year in the District of Columbia. She began:

“One week into the academic year, the District’s school system is still struggling to meet its projected enrollment numbers and to deliver technology to some of its hardest-to-reach students. But teachers and parents also say that each day, remote learning in the nation’s capital is improving. Technology troubles are becoming less frequent, more students are showing up to virtual classes, and everyone is becoming more adept at using unfamiliar computer platforms.”

The only problem with her claims is that the lengthy report did not mention one charter school by name. In fact, readers would have no idea that there was another public school sector that teaches 46 percent of all pupils in the city. On this particular day, she left out the accounts of 43,485 students. It is as if the newspaper went back in time to 1995, the year before the first charter opened here. In paragraph seven she even wrote, “D.C. Public Schools educate about 52,000 students.” The total of all those attending public schools is actually approaching one hundred thousand.

In a way, the story did remind me of twenty-five years ago when the traditional schools were crumbling physically and characterized by the frequent absence of professional instruction. Ms. Perry stated that the regular schools were not quite ready for school to start:

“The city’s biggest technological setback has come at the early-childhood level. The school system had wrongly predicted it would be able to get the youngest learners into school buildings a few days a week and did not plan to have virtual learning for them. When officials learned that school would be all virtual in late July, they ordered iPads for thousands of students, which have not yet arrived. They plan to distribute them in mid-September, with many prekindergarten students starting the school year with paper packets.

‘We placed the order later than we did the other technology,’ Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn told residents at the town hall. ‘That is a problem of procurement.'” 

Really? I’m sorry, this was not a “problem of procurement.” It was a failure of planning. Since last spring, chances were never good that kids would be able to return to classrooms like before the pandemic hit. Allow me to remind you that it was before the advent of charters that children in DCPS often started the school year off without textbooks. This was one of the first things that Michelle Rhee corrected when she rode into our city.

There was one area of her article in which charter schools were referenced, but it was in an oblique way. The only teacher interviewed was Liz Koenig, who is identified as a “prekindergarten teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Northeast Washington.” Ms. Koenig is known for teaming up with anti-charter school freelance writer Rachel Cohen in attacking the movement, specifically detailing her dismissal from Bridges PCS. This was the best source that Ms. Perry could find?

I will guarantee you that the first week was much different regarding charters. Technology issues aside, I am sure that each was ready to go on day one. But how would we know for sure? The education reporter for the Washington Post is pretending that we are living in a community in which school reform never happened.

Congress needs to immediately expand D.C. private school voucher program

As was written about yesterday, the Covid-19 pandemic is greatly exacerbating the gap in educational opportunities for the affluent compared to the poor. The new school year is rapidly coming towards us and with almost all public schools reverting to distance learning, families with the financial means to do so are figuring out alternative delivery methods for instructing their children. Some are creating pods of small groups of kids and then hiring a teacher to instruct them at participants’ homes. Others are having parents impart lessons to neighborhood boys and girls as an adjunct to the remote classrooms offered from their regular school. A taste of what is going on out there comes from the New York Times’ Melinda Wenner Moyer.

“Instead of hiring teachers, some families are hoping to share the teaching among the parents. Meredith Phillips, a mother of an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old who lives in Croton, N.Y., is hoping to create a pod with three other families this fall that will rotate houses. One of the dads, who owns a tech company, might teach coding, while Phillips, who is an editor, will teach reading and writing. The parents will ideally teach ‘whatever they’re good at, or know about or care about,’ Phillips said, and in doing so expose the kids to lots of different subjects.

Some families are pulling their kids out of school for these learning pods, while others are using pods as a supplement to their schools’ online curricula. ‘Ideally, from our perspective, it would be complementary, rather than a replacement,’ said Adam Davis, a pediatrician in San Francisco who is hoping to create a learning pod with a teacher or college-aged helper for his second grader and kindergartener in the fall.”

Other parents are enrolling their children in private schools that are able to open because of the small class sizes that they routinely provide.

The world of pods and private schools are simply unavailable for those who live in poverty, with one important exception. Since 2004, the District of Columbia has been home to the only national private school voucher program approved by Congress. Currently, about 1,700 low income pupils participate. Many more families would take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program if funding beyond the current $17.5 million per year was allocated.

A tremendous focus of public education over the past several years has been equity for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The Black Lives Matter movement has placed a powder keg under this goal.

Everyone knows that distance learning is far from ideal. Families struggle mightily to have their children participate while they have to work. Basic human fairness means that alternatives to learning in front of a computer should be available to all no matter the income of the parents or the zip code in which they live.

Let’s call on Congress to immediately expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Pandemic brings out inequity in public education like nothing we have ever seen

My oldest grandson is starting first grade in a few weeks in Montgomery County. He and his parents are terribly disappointed that he will not be returning in person to the school he fell in love with during the first part of his Kindergarten year. Like numerous others across the country, my daughter and her husband are struggling to balance work, remote learning, and care for a younger child.

When this is all over I have complete confidence that Oliver will be fine. But what I don’t know is what will happen to those without the means to provide financial security to their family. Covid-19 will be remembered for many things but the most significant I believe is the disparity in education it is highlighting between the haves and havenots.

In the spring the focus was on disadvantages for the poor when it comes to distance learning. Scores of homes lack adequate internet access and computer hardware. Add to this an overnight shift to online classes and the concomitant introduction of uneven instruction and you have a disaster for children that were already 60 academic achievement gap points behind their more affluent peers.

Now with school buildings still closed for the new term adults with means are figuring out alternative methods for educating their offspring. Some are enrolling their children in private schools, many with tuition of over twenty thousand dollars a year. Others are creating pods with other neighbors in which teachers are hired to work with a small number of pupils, while some are using adults to monitor time spent in front of laptops. Both scenarios carry heavy price tags. Yesterday, the Boston Globe featured one family who decided to take their daughter out of the local public school.

“Patricia Callan, who teaches writing at Salem State University, has pulled her 7-year-old daughter out of Beverly Public Schools to form a full-time home-schooling pod with three other families. She loves public schools, but as someone with hypertension and asthma that place her at higher risk of complications from the virus, she worried about her daughter bringing the virus home. The pod will provide her daughter with badly needed socialization and in-person learning, she said. During the spring, online schoolwork kept her daughter occupied for only an hour and half per day at most, Callan said.”

Today, the editors of the Washington Post decry the current situation.

“Everyone — parents, principals, teachers, government officials and the students themselves — desperately wants a return to the classroom. As Mr. Gregorich told The Post’s Eli Saslow in a wrenching account of the dilemma facing the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District, ‘These kids are hurting right now.’ Remote learning, which many schools turned to when they were forced to close in March, is a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Children need the social supports, interactions and friendships that come with attendance. ‘I get phone calls from families dealing with poverty issues, depression, loneliness, boredom,’ said Mr. Gregorich. ‘Some of these kids are out in the wilderness right now, and school is the best place for them.'”

Times such as these call for extraordinary action. So what are we in the nation’s capital to do? One approach is for nonprofits to assist in creating learning pods for at-risk youth. The Boston Globe described one founded by the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, formed through a $235,000 donation from the Shlomo Fund. The DC Education Equity Fund, whose purpose is to bridge the digital divide for low income students, can expand its mission to provide support for learning at home.

We should all reach into our pockets to see how we can support those in our community who are hurting right now. With schools closed until at least November and likely beyond, we cannot turn our backs on those in our community who desperately need our help.

At-risk student admission preference in D.C. charter schools is a bad idea

I would be a fool to argue with my friend Daniela Anello, head of school for DC Bilingual PCS. However, the notion of a voluntary at-risk student preference for students applying to charter schools in the nation’s capital, which Ms. Anello supports according to the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, strikes me as the wrong way to go.

I completely understand the logic behind making this change. Some charters, such as Washington Latin PCS, Basis PCS, and other highly sought-after language immersion schools, enroll relatively low levels of students who are categorized as at-risk. If charter schools could reserve a percentage of their seats for at-risk students, the number thirty percent is being floated, then the diversity of the student body would increase and low-income students would gain access to a quality education therefore helping to narrow the achievement gap. It all makes sense, perhaps in the short-term.

However, the plan is not consistent with the tenets of school choice. Under the philosophy of an education marketplace that has provided the foundation for public education reform in the District for more than twenty five years, admission to charters is on a random basis through a lottery once a school has more applicants than seats. There are a few admission preferences that exist today. Siblings of already admitted students get offers to attend before other students and the same is true of children of school employees and those of founding board members, although there are numerical limits to the latter two. St. Colletta PCS gained approval in 2017 for a special education student preference. I learned today that a charter school may, with the prior approval of the DC PCSB, give an admission preference to active members of the armed forces.

The best way to ensure that charter schools are responsive to the needs of their customers, who are their parents and their students, is to ensure that their customers want to be in that school. Anything that alters the relationship of supply and demand diminishes the power of choice. If more affluent pupils gain access to a school because more numbers apply to get in, then this is only fair.

The way to accomplish having more at-risk children attend our charters is to build them where these kids live. How often have we heard the mantra repeated that we need to “meet kids where they are.” This is exactly the route taken by Two Rivers PCS, Lee Montessori PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS and potentially the future location of the second Washington Latin campus.

The advantage of this route for teaching more low-income students is that charters begin to become more of a neighborhood school, something that people like me who favor an educational marketplace predicted would occur. Young people then attend school with those that live around them and transportation for parents becomes simpler. Picture here KIPP DC PCS, Friendship PCS, and DC Prep PCS, for example.

Some will make the case that my solution to teaching more at-risk pupils reduces diversity in the classroom. This may be true when measuring this trait by race. My hope is that we have moved past this method of classification.

D.C. public school will teach virtually in the fall; this is the right call

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced yesterday that D.C. public schools will instruct students utilizing remote learning until at least November. All District of Columbia charter schools are certain to follow suit. The news is extremely disappointing for parents and students. However, it is absolutely the correct decision.

As a society we have not done what we needed to do to get this pandemic under control. Some of this phenomenon is due to the science behind Covid-19; it took time for scientists and medical professionals to understand the truly basic behaviors that could reduce infection rates. However, and this is the part where mankind has fallen far short of its potential, politics entered the debate over re-opening businesses and other activities which has resulted in thousands of Americans dying unnecessarily.

The drive to bring life back to a new normal has been extremely strong. People have been out of work and many have not been able to pay their rents or mortgages. Food insecurity has risen rapidly throughout the nation. The natural response to the deep despair and severe stress our neighbors have been facing on a daily basis was to hit the ignition switch on our economy, which before the spread of this infection was the strongest in the world. But what adults often learn the hard way throughout their lives is that what you want to happen is often not what should occur.

This is not to say that those who have argued to keep schools closed have acted with behaviors that should be an example to our children. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein, Julie Zauzmer, and Justin George detailed yesterday, with photographs, members of the Washington Teachers’ Union delivering simulated body bags to the headquarters of DCPS. This is beyond disgusting.

We desperately need to get our children back into classrooms. Stories abound about kids falling behind academically as they are forced to stay home, a situation that is significantly amplified for special education students. Social and psychological problems arise due to the current environment. Adults cannot figure out how to balance school and their careers.

We will get through this current state of affairs. Our education leaders will strengthen distance learning programs and do the absolute best that they can for our scholars. They will do the right thing because that’s what we do in this country.

I’ve re-read many times the words of Congressman John Lewis that he requested to be printed on the day of his funeral. He remarked:

“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

School buildings will be closed come August. Let’s teach our children.

D.C. charter board bids adieu to executive director Scott Pearson with total class

When I reviewed the agenda for Monday evening’s monthly meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, I remember thinking that the session was a waste of time. The items for discussion were so few that I thought the authorizer should take the night off. But then I tuned in and quickly realized why this gathering was taking place.

It turned out that the PCSB had put together a highly organized celebration of the eight and a half years that Scott Pearson has held the role of executive director. On Zoom, speaker after speaker, over a span of about an hour and 10 minutes, sung Mr. Pearson’s praises about his achievements. The list of participants perfectly represented the history of the spectacular success of charter schools in the nation’s capital. Mr. Pearson observed the event with his wife sitting closely on one side of him and his daughter on the other. Allow me to list the speakers in order of appearance so you get an idea of the magnitude of this endeavor:

Rick Cruz, PCSB chair; Saba Bireda, PCSB vice chair; Steve Bumbaugh, PCSB board member; Lea Crusey, PCSB board member; Naomi Shelton, PCSB board member; Jim Sandman, PCSB board member; Sara Mead, former PCSB board member; Skip McKoy, former PCSB chair; Don Soifer, former PCSB board member; Shannon Hodge, DC Charter School Alliance executive director; Maya Martin, PAVE founder and executive director; Terry Golden, KIPP DC PCS chair; Jack Patterson, KIPP DC chief community engagement and growth officer; Abigail Smith, former DC Deputy Mayor for Education and E.L Haynes PCS chair; Erika Bryant, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS executive director; Laura Maestas, DC Prep PCS chief executive officer; Daniela Anello, DC Bilingual PCS head of school; and Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, former PCSB deputy director.

All of the speeches powerfully and meticulously detailed the contributions Mr. Pearson has made to the education of all children in the District of Columbia. However, as with many board meetings, it was Mr. Sandman who I believe best summarized the reasons many are deeply disappointed that there is a change in leadership at the PCSB. He stated that Mr. Pearson had four main accomplishments. Mr. Sandman recognized the former executive director for his single minded focus on school quality, his implementation of measures of quality and policies around the PCSB’s work, the recruitment of world-class staff, and his personal integrity.

Once Ms. DeVeaux concluded her remarks, which, despite a heroic effort she could not get though without crying, it was Mr. Pearson’s turn to address the audience. He and his wife followed in the former PCSB deputy director’s footsteps in that I could see tears streaming down their faces. Mr. Person’s words should stand as a permanent testament to the meaning of charter schools in the United States of America:

“’This job has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life.

I’ve said many times that this job has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life.  So, this moment is very emotional for me.

Public charter schools have always been about empowering people to create great schools that meet the needs of families.   Is there anything more inspiring than this? The unlocking of human potential is the greatest work any of us can engage in. In public charter schools we have found a new way to achieve this, at every level, from the students we serve to the 600 school board members who are now engaged in supporting public education in Washington, DC.

Public charter schools have always been about both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.  The what, of course, is creating excellent and unique schools, schools who allow families to find a school that is the right fit for them, who innovate to produce better and more equitable results, and who transform communities.  But the ‘how’ is just as important. Public charter schools allow extraordinary individuals – many of whom would never dream of working in a large education bureaucracy – to participate in the great civic endeavor of public education.  A good authorizer, through a focus on outcomes paired with maximum freedom for how those outcomes are achieved, allows innovation, diversity, choice, and excellence to thrive in public education.

That has always been the promise of public charter schools.  But when we look around the country, we see that promise has too often been unfulfilled: schools underperform, they find ways to be selective, they steal money, they fail to serve all students.  And often, the underlying cause of this failure is an authorizer who is too lax on quality, who deprives schools of essential freedoms, who ignores proper oversight. 

When I accepted this job I was determined to lead an authorizer that allowed public charter schools to fulfill their promise – who found ways to respect school autonomy while ensuring proper oversight, and who found ways to show that public charter schools can be a constructive and collaborative part of civic life.  

I believe that, for the most part, we’ve succeeded.  By almost every measurable dimension our schools have become higher quality and more equitable over the past eight years.  We’ve deepened our collaboration with DC Public Schools, launching a common lottery, a citywide enrollment fair and a citywide recruiting fair.  We’ve gone from ignoring city agencies to engaging deeply with them, working together on more than thirty task forces and working groups.  In the process, we’ve helped make our city stronger and better able to serve all of its residents.

With that said, there is much more to be done.  We’ve narrowed the Achievement Gap, but it remains far too large.  Our work has always been premised on the firm belief that Black Lives Matter, but we still have so far to go to make that aspiration a reality.  Part of my decision to step down was a recognition that maybe I’ve carried things forward as far as I am able, and what is needed are new perspectives, new ideas, and new energy to sustain our progress.  In Dr. Michelle Walker-Davis I believe our board has found a leader to do just that.  

Of course, I planned to step down long before coronavirus.  With the pandemic the challenges before the DC Public Charter School Board have doubled, as they have for our schools and virtually every other institution across the globe.  The savage inequities in who is affected and who is dying of the virus only reinforce our obligation to offer schools that are both equitable and excellent. 

I leave this job with much gratitude, starting with my deepest thanks to you, our volunteer board members who have given so much to our community and to me.  I’m particularly grateful to the board chairs I’ve served under, Rick Cruz, Darren Woodruff, John ‘Skip’ McKoy and Brian Jones, each of whom has been an invaluable source of support, of helpful criticism, and of the kind of thought partnership essential to reaching good decisions.

I’m grateful to our school leaders, staff, and their boards.  They are the ones really doing the hard work every day.  They, more than anyone, have been the source of inspiration and energy to me.  I made it a practice to start many of my workdays with a school visit, and the joy from those visits powered me for the rest of the day. 

I also want to thank the city leadership, including Mayor Bowser and before her Mayor Gray, and the City Council, particularly Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Education Committee Chair David Grosso.  We haven’t agreed on everything, but their core support for our schools and their funding has been invaluable.  And our progress wouldn’t have been possible without the partnership of Hanseul Kang at OSSE, the leadership at DCPS, including Kaya Henderson and Lewis Ferebee, and at the Deputy Mayor for Education, particularly Abby Smith, Jennie Niles, and Paul Kihn.

Finally, I want to thank our staff.  I have grown so much in the past eight years, as a leader and as a person.  And much of that growth has been because of you.  Your feedback wasn’t always easy to hear, but it was a gift.  I have truly loved the opportunity to work with you, such a smart and committed and talented group.  Most of all I want to thank our senior team, Lenora, Tomeika, Rashida, and Sarah – and from the past, Clara, Theola, Nicole and Naomi – this job has truly been a team effort.  I thank you for your wisdom, your friendship, your high standards, your excellent work, your willingness to tell me when I’m wrong, and, most of all your ability to make me laugh.  Without you, this job may have been impossible, and it certainly would have been a lot less fun.

I have to admit I feel a little guilty stepping aside in this moment of crisis, but I leave optimistic in the future, with confidence in this board, in the DC PCSB staff, and in Dr. Walker-Davis.  I pledge to stay engaged on behalf of public charter schools and to support you in any way I can.”

It was a truly spectacular event. 

D.C. charter schools set bad example by taking PPP funds

Despite my recommendation that charter schools in the District forgo applying for Paycheck Protection Program money from the federal government, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reveals today that “more than 25 charters have applied for and received these dollars, some getting cash in the two to five million dollar range. Below is a list of twenty eight charters, as tweeted by Will Perkins, that apparently obtained PPP received loans, which under the plan can be converted to grants. Mr. Perkins is an analyst at the Office of the DC Auditor.

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The charter schools join a list of prominent private schools in our area such as Sidwell Friends, Lowell School, Georgetown Preparatory, the Field School, the Edwin Burke School, and Gonzaga College High School that also accepted the funding.

According to Ms. Stein, charter and private schools justify their awards by stating that “they are legally entitled to the money and that it is a necessary infusion, with private donations drying up and enrollment numbers unclear for the next academic year. They need the money, they said, to ensure they can keep all of their employees on their payrolls.”

Shannon Hodge, the newly appointed executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, defended the actions of the school’s she represents this way, according to the Post reporter:

“We know that costs will go up, but more importantly, there are lots of things that are unknown. . . . This program allows them to bring some stability to this uncertain situation.”

Kingsman Academy PCS, the school where Ms. Hodge recently resigned as executive director, on the table above is in the three hundred and fifty thousand to one million dollar range for government assistance.

With all of the discombobulation going on out there right now, revenue for charter schools is perhaps one of the only areas where stability actually exists. The D.C. Council recently recommended a three percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula for the 2021 fiscal year. In addition, the charter school per pupil facility allotment is slated to go up.

As I drive to work everyday during the week and see all of the businesses that are closed, I think about all of the people now without jobs. My own family has been impacted by the pandemic. To me, taking these extremely limited PPE dollars away from those who are trying to figure out how to put food on the table is nothing less than disgusting.

I wish to thank the many charters that decided to do the right thing.

U.S. Supreme Court gives school choice greatest victory in 18 years

Yesterday, in its final day of the current term, the United States Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a school tuition tax credit program in Montana should have been allowed to include religious schools as recipients of the scholarships. The program was shuttered by the Montana Supreme Court because it permitted parents to send their children to sectarian schools as well as those that are nonreligious.

The finding of the court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, could not have been clearer:

“The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.”

In other words, the failure to allow parents to enroll their children in a religious school interfered with their free exercise of religion.

It is the most important U.S. Supreme Court decision since Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002. In that case, the Court found that the inclusion of religious schools in a Cleveland private school voucher plan did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Zelman was a tremendous and hard-fought victory for school choice, and like Espinoza, was argued by the libertarian Institute for Justice. But there was also a tremendous difference between the two legal actions.

Cleveland’s state constitution does not include a Blaine Amendment, language contained in 37 state constitutions that prohibit taxpayer funds from going to religious schools. Here is what I wrote about Blaine Amendments last January when the U.S. Supreme Court head arguments in Espinoza and I predicted the eventual decision would be a victory for educational freedom:

“The heart of the today’s argument will revolve around the concept of the Blaine Amendment. Blaine Amendments were included in the constitution of 37 states in the 19th century. During this period, schools were dominated by Protestants and there was a rejection of the new wave of Catholic immigrants to this country. Blaine Amendments are named after U.S. Senator Blaine who in 1875 attempted to get a constitutional amendment passed mirroring those that were later adopted in state constitutions preventing public money going to religious institutions. Public schools at the time were already religious, according to the I.J., teaching nondenominational Protestant ideas. Catholics sought to influence the nature of instruction taking place in schools, and when that effort failed, sought funding for their own educational institutions.”

Blaine amendments have been used time and time again in the past to invalidate school choice plans that have allowed parents to pick religious schools. Now that this decision has come down and Blaine Amendments invalidated, look for the floodgates of private school choice programs to open widely across the country.

The Washington Post, as it has done since I met with former editorial page director Colbert King in 1999, again came out strongly in favor of the Supreme Court’s reasoning:

“We think there is value in, and have supported, programs that — like the one envisioned by Montana lawmakers and D.C.’s successful Opportunity Scholarship Program — help low-income parents afford a choice in their children’s education, a choice that parents empowered with the economic means exercise by moving to a particular school district or sending their children to private school. It is important to remember that the scholarship goes to the child, and that the child’s family then decides which school best meets the needs of individual students. Schools that participate in these programs must meet academic requirements established by the state or locality, and some religiously affiliated schools have proved successful in boosting student achievement, attendance and civic engagement.

Ms. Espinoza chose Stillwater Christian School not because she wanted to advance its interests but because she wanted a school that fit her daughters’ needs and was a place where they could thrive. They — and other students who stand to benefit from opportunities opened up — are the true winners.”

In the midst of a pandemic, severe economic strife, and racial unrest, we can smile for a moment over the Supreme Court’s decision. It is possible that in the future there will be other wranglings over the constitutionality of programs that allow parents to pick the school of their choice for their children. But there will never be one as significant as Espinoza.

As we approach the Independence Day Fourth of July celebration, freedom just won a great triumph.